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FSF developing social networking software

Creators of free and open source software are often criticised for not bothering to make equivalents of proprietary software and web applications to attract users over.

This criticism is frequently levelled at the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project which kicked off the process of creating a free operating system back in the 1980s. Such criticism is often driven by ideological considerations and out of ignorance.

Social networks are all the rage today and with that in mind, the FSF is driving the creation of social networking software which should provide similar functionality to Facebook with two important differences - privacy and freedom are in the user's hands.

Matt Lee (below), the leader of the team working on GNU social, says, "It is a new decentralised social network, offering privacy and freedom to its users. We're based on the StatusNet codebase that powers Identi.ca."
Matt Lee
Lee told iTWire that the project began shortly after he began working on Libre.fm, a free software service for discovering new music, in April last year. "After a few months, we began thinking about social networking features and I was hesitant to add them to our service only, instead thinking that it would be better to roll it as a separate component," he says.

"As with Libre.fm (GNU FM), I wanted to create a project which would allow users to replace an existing web service they use, with one that they could control. With Libre.fm we've built a viable replacement for Last.fm; with GNU social, we're creating a free alternative to social networking sites."

At the core of GNU social is a piece that Lee likes to call the relationship manager. "This handles all your social connections, and lets you set how you want privacy and your relationships with others to be handled by default. For example, a celebrity may wish to set their GNU social set-up to accept friend requests from everyone, but show them very little in exchange. Being able to easily and efficiently deal with different people - from fans, to family and all that's between in a clear, privacy-minded way is key.

"We're also hoping to create some fun games, add private messaging (kind of like Facebook's 'Inbox' feature, but decentralised) and eventually open things up to allow people to very quickly plug GNU social into their existing applications via a kind of 'social bridge'," Lee says.

He is looking forward to using GNU social in order to keep up with his own family. "Since leaving Facebook, I've gained a couple new baby cousins and some friends have recently gotten married - I've missed out a little as a result of being Facebookless, if you will."

While GNU social is yet to be formally released, Lee says it is usable. "A lot of the good stuff is already done, thanks in no small part to the work of Evan Prodromou and the StatusNet developers. I met Craig Andrews who is a StatusNet developer through some local FSF events, and he expressed interest in getting involved with GNU social, so we have his contributions to StatusNet as our official 'stake' in StatusNet as it were."

StatusNet is an open source microblogging application.

"In addition to Craig and StatusNet, we are blessed to have some great young developers from Clark University - Sean Corbett and Ian Denhardt - who are working on GNU social and getting paid over the summer," Lee says.

"Additionally, there's myself and Rob Myers, and Steven DuBois from the GNU Generation project. Rob and Steve are focusing on the user experience, Sean and Ian working closely with StatusNet and Craig, leaving me to help steer everyone in the right direction, though I expect to dip in a little with the code and design parts too. We're also delighted to have Will Kahn-Greene from Miro and Dan Brickley from the World Wide Web Consortium on-board as contributors."

Lee has known about free software and the web for a long time, his first exposure to the FSF and GNU being when he was nine or 10. "It was something that really appealed to me at a very young age - not really knowing how things worked, I would look at all the source code I could find, and growing up in the UK we had magazines that would print listings of small games and utilities. So while I've been involved in free software for a number of years, before that I was a fledgling comedian," he says.

"Around 2003, I took a break to work on a free culture production company - some friends and I made a couple of TV pilots that would be freely licensed, but it didn't really go anywhere. I did however meet Rob Myers, a copyleft artist and hacker, through that work, and we've been collaborating ever since. I started getting involved with the FSF more when I started back with free software around 2005, eventually landing myself the role of GNU chief webmaster, before working with the FSF as a consultant for a while. After I got married and decided to move to the US, it seemed natural to work full-time at the FSF and I've been there since the end of 2008 now."

Lee says the response to GNU social has been phenomenal. "We've been very lucky to attract some incredibly smart people. Our decision to work closely with the folks at StatusNet, which is proving to be both a wonderful working relationship, is also a fantastic opportunity for the new developers we've encouraged.

"GNU social, and Libre.fm before it, have both been very good ways to get new, often inexperienced developers involved in working on cutting-edge, popular and public free software projects. We're lucky that my work at the FSF is such that I'm able to work on GNU social outside of my day job, and having Peter Brown and Bradley Kuhn around to pick their brains on strategy and next-steps has been a real asset too."

Lee is on the lookout for socially responsible organisations and companies who would be interested in hosting GNU social servers for people to sign up to. "Anyone who's interested should join our social-discuss mailing list or send an email to support@foocorp.net," he says.

On the plus point of GNU social he says, "well, decentralisation is about privacy and safety, but I like to think that we're also alerting people to the danger of social silos. The web is inherently social, so having one website for all of the world's social relationships to occur is culturally redundant - instead, social should be like email, where people run their own mail servers, people should be running their own social servers.

"There should be huge networks of interconnected social servers, completely hidden away from the public on corporate networks, and companies, organisations and brands should have their own social servers, inviting people to come join them, whilst giving people the ability to strictly control how much, if anything, they share with these other sites."

Asked about the naysayers who are constant grumbling that projects like GNU social concentrate on asking people to say no to popular web technologies rather than promote their own benefits and the fact that they are an alternative, Lee says: "We embrace all the web standards, including emerging ones like Webfinger. I'm unaware of what other web technologies we're asking people to say no to.

"We're certainly not afraid to talk about the inherent dangers in something like Facebook, but in terms of other free software projects to create decentralised social networks, I look forward to all the work that's going on right now coming to fruition, and see a lot of working together among projects in the coming months and years... it's clear to me that a monoculture of social networks is bad for society, and I'm doing my part in helping to change that."



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.